Golf Course News

Pythium outbreak in the Midwest attacks turf and budgets

Pythium outbreak in the Midwest attacks turf and budgets

Joyner, Joel

MORRIS, Ill. – In the last part of July to mid-August here in the Midwest, a heat wave and an extended period of high humidity created ideal conditions for widespread Pythium activity. Several superintendents dealt with the “water mold” in stride after protecting their fairways, greens and tees with a fungicide preventative, but others were forced to pay for their gamble with Mother Nature.

“With the heat wave in Chicago, just about every course had Pythium,” said Paul Vermeulen, director with the USGA Green Section in Mahomet, Ill. “We had about four to five weeks of hot and humid weather. There was quite a bit of Pythium in fairways ana roughs.

The weather finally broke around mid-August, but before that conditions were pretty tough, said superintendent Pat Norton here at the Nettle Creek Country Club, just southwest of Chicago. “Sometimes superintendents try to save too much honey, and I’ve been guilty of that,” he said. “You try to economize a little too much and hope to fly by without getting any Pythium, and then you get hammered.”

Greens and tees were treated preventively at the course and survived the outbreak. “I don’t really treat fairways preventively,” Norton said, “so we had a fair shot of it. I usually do some spot treatments, but this year we ended up with Pythium in areas we’ve never seen it before. With the extreme humidity and high temperatures, it just kept popping up.”

The disease, if left untreated, is capable of spreading in a matter of hours. “The ironic part of this is that after the damage occurred, we decided that we better not leave ourselves open for more damage,” said Norton. “So, we did spray preventively and the weather cooled down about five days later. It felt like a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.”


Norton was not alone in having to deal with the situation, according to Robert Vavrek, agronomist at the USGA Green Section in Elm Grove, Wis. “It all depended on what course budgets were like to be able to afford to spray fairways,” he said. “Most superintendents had greens and tees covered, but the cost of treating 25 acres of fairways is prohibitive to some budgets.”

There have been courses that haven’t seen Pythium in Vavrek’s region for four or five years. “It was pretty universal here this season,” he said. “Once the damage occurs, it can really spread quickly. It’s a disease that once superintendents see it, they’ll take action.

“States more in the transition zone or Mid-Atlantic states probably see Pythium more often because of weather conditions,” said Vavrek. “But, then again, they probably expect it and budget more for preventative treatments. They know conditions will exist year in and year out. It’s not always the case here.”


Pythium becomes active in areas with poor air movement, valley areas or low pockets near creeks or stands of trees.

“It was on some of our greens that have tree surrounds,” said Dean Whittington, superintendent at the Oak Hills Municipal Golf Course in Middlebury, Ind. “The greens out in the open weren’t quite as bad. A few spots here and there, but nothing like on five or six of our problem greens.

“We had nights where the low temperature was 75 degrees and the dew point was 72 or above,” explained Whittington. “The heat indexes were around 107 and 108 degrees for nearly a three week period here.”

Whittington applies as little fungicide as possible preventively because of the chemical budget at the course. “I try to stay ahead of Pythium and watch for it when conditions are right,” he said.

It was perfect weather for Pythium, described Dave Alexander, assistant superintendent at the Highland Meadows Golf Course in Sylvania, Ohio. “We had it in some of our rough areas and green banks, but we treated all the fairways, greens and tees preventatively.”

The course treated the areas with Subdue in “two shots,” once on June 1 and again ori` July 1, according to Alexander. “We knew it was coming, so we planned on it,” he said.


The good news for Norton is that when the heat wave broke, perfect grass growing weather followed. “I knew from my experience with our Penncross fairways that it does a lot of filling in on its own;” Norton said. “Fellow superintendents that were here for golf outings were saying, That turfs dead, you’re going to have to reseed that area.’ Sure enough, though, some placeshitby Pythium started filling back in. I’ll still have to overseed some of the worst hit areas. 11

Norton estimates that the course spent three times its normal expenditure on Pythium chemicals this season. “We usually spend $2,000 to $3,000 to protect our greens, tees and problem areas,” he said. “A ten-gallon container of Subdue is $4,850 here. That’s $5,000 just to spray fairways once preventively. It’s not always an easy call to make.

“It’s funny, after the fact, owners will say, `Well, you needed to spend that money,'” Norton said. “Once the damage occurs, it becomes obvious.”

Copyright United Publications, Inc. Oct 2001

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